Home  »  Don Quixote, Part 1  »  XXI. Wherein the Canon Prosecutes His Discourse upon Books of Chivalry, and Many Other Things Worthy of His Wit

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616). Don Quixote, Part 1.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

The Fourth Book

XXI. Wherein the Canon Prosecutes His Discourse upon Books of Chivalry, and Many Other Things Worthy of His Wit

‘SIR, you say very true,’ quoth the curate; ‘and for this very reason are they which have hitherto invented such books the more worthy of reprehension, because they neither heeded the good discourse, the art, nor the rules by which they might have guided themselves, and by that means have grown as famous for their prose as be the two princes of the Greek and Latin poetry for their verse.’ ‘I have, for my part,’ quoth the canon, ‘at least attempted to write a book of chivalry, observing therein all the points by me mentioned; and in truth I have written above a hundred sheets thereof; and to the end that I might try whether they were correspondent to my estimation, I did communicate them both with certain skilful and wise men, that are marvellously affected to that subject, and with some ignorant persons that only delight to hear fanatical inventions, and I have found in them all a great approbation of my labours; yet would I not for all that prosecute the work, as well because it seemed unfit for my profession, as also because I find the number of the ignorant to exceed that of the judicious; and though more good come to a man by the praise of a few wise men, than hurt by the scoffs of a number of fools, yet would I not willingly subject myself to the confused judgment of the senseless vulgar, who commonly give themselves most unto the reading of such books. But that which most of all rid my hands, yea, and my memory, of all desire to end it, was this argument, drawn from our modern comedies, and thus made to myself: If those (as well the fictions as historical ones) are all, or the most part of them, notorious fopperies, and things without either head or foot, and yet are by the vulgar heard with such delight, and held and approved for good; and both the authors that compose them, and actors that represent them, say that they must be such as they be for to please the people’s humours, and not more conformable to reason or truth; and that because those wherein decorum is observed, and the fable followed according to the rules of art, serve only for three or four discreet men (if so many may be found at a play) which do attend unto them, and all the rest of the auditors remain fasting, by reason they cannot conceive the artificial contexture thereof; therefore it is better for them to gain good money and means by many than bare opinion or applause by a few. The very same would be the end of my book, after I had used all possible industry to observe the aforesaid precept; and I should remain only for a need, and as the tailor that dwells in a corner, without trade or estimation.

‘And although I have sundry times endeavoured to persuade the players that their opinion was erroneous herein, and that they would attract more people and acquire greater fame by acting artificial comedies than those irregular and methodical plays then used, yet are they so wedded to their opinion, as no reason can woo nor demonstration win them from it. I remember how, dealing upon a day with one of those obstinate fellows, I said unto him, “Do not you remember how a few years ago were represented in Spain three tragedies, written by a famous poet of our kingdom, which were such as delighted, yea, and amazed all the auditors, as well the learned as the simple, the exact as the slight ones, and that the players got more by those three alone than by thirty of the best that were penned or acted since that time,” “You mean, without question,” quoth the actor, answering me, “Isabella, Phyllis, and Alexandra.” “The very same,” quoth I; “and note whether in them were not rightly observed all the rules and precepts of art; and yet thereby they neither wanted any part of their dignity nor the approbation of all the world; so that I infer the fault not to be in the vulgar that covet idle toys, but rather in those which know not how to pen or act any other thing; for no such fond stuff was in the comedy of Ingratitude Revenged, nor found in Numantia, nor perceived in that of The Amorous Merchant, and much less in The Favourable Enemy, nor in some others made by judicious poets, which both redounded to their infinite fame and renown, and yielded unto these actors abundant gain,” To these I added other reasons, wherewith I left him, in mine opinion, somewhat perplexed, but not satisfied, or desirous to forego his erroneous opinion.’

‘Truly, master canon,’ quoth the curate, ‘you have touched a matter that hath roused an ancient rancour and heart-burning of mine against the comedies now in request, the which is equal to the grudge that I bear to books of knighthood; for, seeing the comedy, as Tully affirms, ought to be a mirror of man’s life, a pattern of manners, and an image of truth, those that are now exhibited are mirrors of vanity, patterns of folly, and images of voluptuousness. For what greater absurdity can be in such a subject, than to see a child come out in the first scene of the first act in his swaddling clouts, and issue in the second already grown a man, yea, a bearded man? And what greater vanity than to present before us a valiant old man and a young coward? a layman become a divine? a page a councillor? a king a scoundrel? a princess a scour-kettle? What should I say of the little care had of the due observation of time for the succeeding of that they represent, other than that I myself have seen comedies whose first act began in Europe, the second in Asia, and the third ended in Africa; and truly, if there had been a fourth, it would questionless have finished in America, and by consequence, we should have seen a round walk about the four parts of the world. And feigning an exploit performed in the time of King Pepin or of Charlemagne, they make the principal actors thereof either Heraclius the emperor that entered into Jerusalem bearing of the holy cross, or Godfrey of Bouillon that recovered the Holy Land; many years, yea, and ages having occurred between the times of the one and the other: yea, and the comedy being grounded on a fiction, to attribute unto it the verities of a history, and mingle it and patch it up with pieces of others having relation to different persons and times; and this with no plausible invention, or draft resembling the truth, but rather with palpable, gross,. and inexcusable errors. And which is worse, some gulls are found to affirm that all perfection consists herein, and that they are too dainty that look for any other.

‘Now, if we would pass further, to examine the divine comedies that treat of God, or the lives of saints, what a multitude of false miracles do the composers devise! what a bulk of matters apocryphal and ill-understood, attributing to one saint the miracles done by another; yea, and in human comedies they presume to do miracles (without further respect or consideration but that such a miracle or show, as they term it, would do well in such a place), to the end that the ignorant folk may admire them, and come the more willingly to them: all which doth prejudice truth, discredit histories, and turn to the disgrace of our Spanish wits; for strangers which do with much punctuality observe the method of comedies, hold us to be rude and ignorant, when they see such follies and adsurdities escape us; and it will be no sufficient excuse for this error to say that the principal end of well-governed commonwealths, in the permitting of comedies, is only to entertain the commonalty with some honest pastime, and thereby divert the exorbitant and vicious humours which idleness is wont to engender; and seeing that this end is attained to by whatsoever comedies, good or bad, it were to no purpose to appoint any laws or limits unto them, or to tie the composers to frame, or actors to play them, as they should do: for hereunto I answer, that this end would, without all comparison, be compassed better by good comedies than by evil ones; for the auditor having heard an artificial and well-ordered comedy, would come away delighted with the jests and instructed by the truths thereof, wondering at the successes, grow discreeter by the reasons, warned by the deceits, become wise by others’ example, incensed against vice, and enamoured of virtue: all which affects a good comedy should stir up in the hearer’s mind, were he never so gross or clownish. And it is of all impossibilities the most impossible, that a comedy consisting of all these parts should not entertain, delight, satisfy, and content the mind much more than another that should be defective in any of them, as most of our nowaday comedies be. Nor are the poets that pen them chiefly to be blamed for this abuse; for some of them know very well where the error lurks, and know also as well how to redress it; but because that comedies are become a vendible merchandise, they affirm, and therein tell the plain truth, that the players would not buy them if they were of any other than the accustomed kind; and therefore the poet endeavours to accommodate himself to the humour of the player who is to pay him for his labour. And that this is the truth may be gathered by an infinite number of comedies, which a most happy wit of this kingdom hath composed with such delicacy, so many good jests, so elegant a verse, so excellent reasons, so grave sentences, and finally, with so much eloquence and such a loftiness of style, as he hath filled the world with his fame; and yet by reason that he was forced to accommodate himself to the actors, all of them have not arrived to the height of perfection which art requires. Others these are that write without any judgment, and with so little heed of what they do, as after their works have been once acted, the players are constrained to run away and hide themselves, fearing to be punished, as often they have been for acting things obnoxious to the prince, or scandalous to some families.

‘All which inconveniences might be redressed if there were some understanding and discreet person ordained at the court to examine all comedies before they were acted, and that not only such as were played at the court itself, but also all others that were to be acted throughout Spain, without whose allowance, under his hand and seal, the magistrate of no town should permit any comedy to be played; by which means the players would diligently send their plays to the court, and might boldly afterwards act them, and the composers would, with more care and study, examine their labours, knowing that they should pass the strict censure of him that could understand them; and by this means would good comedies be written, and the thing intended by them most easily attained to, viz. entertainment of the people, the good opinion of Spanish wits, the profit and security of the players, and the saving of the care that is now employed in chastising their rashness. And if the same charge were given to this man, or to some other, to examine the books of knighthood which should be made hereafter, some of them doubtless would be put forth adorned with that perfection whereof you spoke but now, enriching our language with the pleasing and precious treasure of eloquence, and being an occasion that the old books would become obscure in the bright presence of those new ones published, for the honest recreation not only of the idler sort, but also of those that have more serious occupations; for it is not possible for the bow to continue still bent, nor can our human and frail nature sustain itself long without some help of lawful recreation.’

The canon and curate had arrived to this point of their discourse, when the barber, spurring on and overtaking them, said to the curate, ‘This is the place I lately told you was fit to pass over the heat of the day in, while the oxen baited amidst the fresh and abundant pastures.’ ‘It likes me very well,’ quoth the curate; and telling the canon what he meant to do, he also was pleased to remain with them, as well invited by the prospect of a beautiful valley which offered itself to their view, as also to enjoy the curate’s conversation, towards whom he began to bear a marvellous affection; and lastly, with the desires he had to be thoroughly acquainted with Don Quixote’s adventures. Therefore he gave order to some of his men that they should ride to the inn, which was hard by, and bring from thence what meat they could find, sufficient to satisfy them all, because he meant likewise to pass the hot time of the day in that place. To which one of his men did answer, that their sumpter mule was by that time, as he thought, in the inn, so copiously furnished with provision of meat, that, as he supposed, they needed not buy anything there but barley for their mules. ‘If it be so,’ quoth the canon, ‘let our mules be carried thither, and the sumpter one returned hither.’

Whilst this passed, Sancho, being free from the continual presence of the curate and barber, whom he held as suspected persons, thought it a fit time to speak with his lord, and therefore drew near to the cage wherein he sat, and said to him in this manner: ‘Sir, that I may discharge my conscience, I will reveal unto you all that hath passed in this affair of your enchantment, which briefly is, that those two which ride with their faces covered, are the curate of our village and the barber, and as I imagine they both are the plotters of this your kind of carrying away, for mere emulation that they see you surpass them both in achieving of famous acts: this truth being presupposed, it follows that you are not enchanted, but beguiled and made a fool; for the proof whereof I will but demand of you one question, and if you do answer me according to my expectation, as I believe you will, you shall feel the deceit with your own hands, and perceive how you are not enchanted, but rather have your wits turned upside-down.’

‘Son Sancho, demand what thou wilt,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘and I will satisfy thee, and answer directly to thy desire; but as touching thy averment that those which go along with us be the curate and barber, our gossips and old acquaintance, it may well befall that they seem to be such, but that they are so really, and in effect, I would not have thee believe in any manner; for that which thou art to believe and shouldst understand in this matter is, that if they be like those our friends, as thou sayst, it must needs be that those which have enchanted me have assumed their semblance and likeness (for it is an easy thing for magicians to put on any shape they please) thereby to give thee occasion to think that which thou dost, to drive thee into such a labyrinth of imaginations as thou shalt not afterwards know how to sally out, although thou hadst the assistance of Theseus’ clue; and withal to make me waver in mine understanding, to the end I may not conjecture from whence this charm is derived unto me; for if thou on the one side dost affirm that the barber and curate of our village do accompany me, and I on the other side find myself encaged, and am so assured of mine own force that no human strength, be it not supernatural, is able thus to encage me, what wouldst thou have me to say or think, but that the manner of mine enchantment exceeds as many as ever I read throughout all the histories entreating of knights-errant which have been enchanted? Wherefore thou mayst very well appease and quiet thyself in that point of believing them to be those thou sayst; for they are those as much as I am a Turk; and, as touching thy desire to demand somewhat of me, speak; for I will answer thee, although thou puttest me questions until to-morrow morning.’

‘Our Lady assist me!’ quoth Sancho, as loud as he could, ‘and is it possible that you are so brain-sick and hard-headed as you cannot perceive that I affirm the very pure truth, and that malice hath a greater stroke in this your disgrace and employment than any enchantments? But seeing it is so, I will prove evidently that you are not enchanted; if not, tell me, as God shall deliver you out of this tempest, and as you shall see yourself, when you least think of it, in my Lady Dulcinea’s arms—’ ‘Make an end of conjuring me,’ said Don Quixote, ‘and ask me what question thou wilt; for I have already told thee that I will answer with all punctuality.’ ‘That is it I demand,’ quoth Sancho; ‘and the thing I would know is, that you tell me, without adding or diminishing aught, but with all truth used or looked for of all those which profess the exercise of arms as you do, under the title of knights-errant.’ ‘I say,’ answered Don Quixote, ‘that I will not lie a jot; make therefore a beginning or an end of these demands, for in good sooth thou dost weary me with so many salutations, petitions, and preventions.’ Sancho replied, ‘I say that I am secure of the bounty and truth of my lord; and therefore, because it makes to the purpose in our affair, I do, with all respect, demand whether your worship, since your encagement and, as you imagine, enchantment in that coop, have not had a desire to make greater or less water, as men are wont to say?’ ‘I do not understand, good Sancho, that phrase of making water; and therefore explicate thyself, if thou wouldst have me to answer thee directly.’ ‘And is it possible,’ replied he, ‘that your worship understands not what it is to make great or little waters? then go to some school and learn it of the boys, and know that I would say, “Have you had a desire to do that which cannot be undone?”’ ‘Oh, now, now I understand thee, Sancho. Yes, very many times; yea, and even now I have. Wherefore, I pray thee, deliver me from the extremity thereof; for I promise thee I am not altogether so clean as I would be.’